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How we used digital engagement tools to improve early years communication skills in Staffordshire

Before the world was changed by the Covid-19 pandemic, Staffordshire County Council was targeting families of children who were struggling to reach their development targets. At the time, 25% of children in Staffordshire weren’t reaching their assessment goals for communication by the age of five, which is usually the age they begin school.

Extensive national research can show how this leads to setbacks in the long-term, as children move through the school system and embark on GCSEs or other qualifications. Further to this, the lack of communications skills could impact their general health and happiness into adulthood.

For these reasons, the County Council was determined to provide more support to parents of new-born and young babies on communication development skills. Hungry Little Minds is a national brand developed by the Department for Education.  We developed a local campaign, Hungry Little Minds Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent, to build on the work done nationally and to create a way to reach local parents.

Creating a digital approach

Hungry Little Minds Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent is a partnership campaign between Staffordshire County Council and Stoke City Council which was born out of a dedication to give every child the best start possible. Backed by a grant from the Government Early Outcomes Fund, we were selected to create a campaign for both the city and county that would encourage parents of young babies to take small, supportive steps for the continued development of their child’s communication skills.

With the help of Granicus’ email communications platform govDelivery, we began sending out personalised invites and suggestions of activities which support communication development in small babies. Each email contains the baby’s name, content catered for their age range and contact details each parent can reach out to if they require further help.

We acknowledged that our previous ways of offering local support and in-person meetings were not engaging for all the people we wanted to reach, so we embraced digital. At first, we could incorporate some of those traditional face-to-face elements with our new approach, but when the pandemic began in 2020, we quickly had to reassess our position.

Our campaign had to embody the same passion as before, while maintaining the same strong reach through a virtual platform. It was evident that we needed our digital system to aid communication during the pandemic and be fully flexible to our needs if we needed to return to an in-person model.

Finding the right channels

While Hungry Little Minds Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent was not a project intended for the restrictions that were brought on by Covid-19, we learned a lot about how digital communications could reach parents who did not enjoy in-person events. Our intention was to create a voice that parents felt they could trust.

A Communications Market Report 2020 from Ofcom revealed that 100% of people between the ages of 25 and 34 owned a mobile phone, with 96% having internet in their own home. The system allowed us to begin delivering personalised information that was both timely and easily digestible to every parent of a young baby, through the medium that they use the most.

Part of our work as a local authority is registering births, so we integrated our campaign sign up into the registry process. Once signed up, the platform would send out email updates fortnightly that consisted of advice specifically for the age bracket of their child. This meant that the advice we give accurately suggests activities for development and effectively helps each individual family.

The system helps us send scheduled emails in bulk, and it prevents them going straight to the spam folder. We utilised an add-on drip campaign which involved a series of gentle nudges that reminds each parent of the small activities they can do with their child to help build communication skills. We understand that having a new baby is stressful and time-consuming and we know that not all parents are going to use their limited time sifting through their emails for advice and information. This is why we deliver our content with a thoughtful, gentle approach in mind.

The content itself was written with accessibility in mind. 11% of Staffordshire households are considered low income, while the same percentage of children locally are entitled to free school meals. We are aware that there is a correlation between levels of deprivation and the early development of communication. So, filling emails with jargon and complicated language would only alienate a parent further from seeking help from a local authority.

Our programme, today

We believe our campaign has been incredibly successful, with around 200 new subscribers joining a month. From the beginning of the project, we were also partnered with the BBC’s campaign, Tiny Happy People, to enhance the accessibility with videos that demonstrate parents carrying out the activities. The BBC’s video content married perfectly with the mutual desire to get parents talking to their babies.

As we continue to adjust back into socialisation and parent-baby groups restart, Hungry Little Minds Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent continues. We believe that each child should have the best possible start in their life and we are here to make this a reality for all in our community.